Dear Nonprofiteer, “AND my office is in a broom closet!”

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am just finishing a year as an ED for a small nonprofit arts organization which has been struggling for almost all of its 30 year history. We have a 2-person admin team and most things seem to fall to me–from grant writing to plumbing.

While we have met our challenges this year and will not go into the red, I have not been able to realize the high hopes that I started this job with last September.

We face the challenge of an old, crumbling and uncomfortable building. We have a board-–of people I personally like–which is resistant to fundraising responsibility but eager to micro-manage small details. I have tried hard to develop a grant campaign but found no funders willing to support our projects. So we limp along on tuition revenue–enough to secure breakeven but not enough to undertake new initiatives.

I try to keep telling myself that this is the way of things in this economy but I am becoming very depressed and am having a hard time getting myself motivated this fall. I am not in a position to walk away from this job and as an older woman in this job market I am not optimistic about other prospects.

And more whining – my office is a broom closet.

Any advice?

Signed, Depressed in the Dumps

Dear Depressed:

The situation you describe is serious but not hopeless. It only feels hopeless because you’re probably trying to solve all the organization’s problems at once, when they need to be solved step by step. The central problem you identify is the Board–for without its fundraising support, you’ll never be able to expand, or repair your building, or get out of the broom closet.

Sit down with your Board president and explain, in the straightforward terms you’ve done here, that the only reasonable source of expansion capital for the group is the Board of Directors and that this Board of Directors seems unwilling to answer your urgent calls for its participation. Propose two things: that you and the President get the Board engaged in a serious effort at recruiting new and motivated Board members, and that once you complete this effort (which should be doable in about 3 months) you conduct a training session for new and veteran Board members alike in which they will learn to ask for money. If the President agrees (and there’s no reason why s/he shouldn’t), this will give the Board something to do that will keep it from micromanaging you AND will result in a new focus on fundraising, even before the current members have been trained to do that work themselves. Most Boards–and most EDs–find the process of brainstorming about new recruits and then conducting recruitment breakfasts or lunches or dinners or midnight snacks an exhilarating one, and it sounds as though a bit of exhilaration wouldn’t come amiss right now.

Once you’ve set this in motion, stop pounding your head against the wall with general-purpose grant applications and go looking for funders who will pay for “capacity building,” a phrase encompassing everything from updating your computer system to teaching your Board how to do its job. Ask for money to hire a Board development consultant, and use that person to help push the Board through the recruitment process or to give them training or both. Your grant proposal should stress that the function of this activity is to enable you to reduce your dependence on grants in the future; this goes over big with people whose job it is to give out grants, contradictory as that may seem.

Finally, consider the possibility of framing this entire project as a prelude to a campaign to improve or replace the building. These are terrible times for capital campaigns, and your Board will figure that out soon enough; but they’ll be more excited about expanding their number, and more expansive in their thinking about who in the community should join them, if they think there’s a possibility someone will want to put a name to a bricks-and-mortar project. You can always disabuse them of this notion later–or, if you don’t, maybe they’ll become properly agitated about the condition of your “office.”

If there is anyplace else in the building your desk can be placed, move there now–being in a windowless space makes everything seem darker, both literally and figuratively, than it actually is. You’re the ED–pull rank and choose someplace better to sit. “Better” may be a term of art meaning “loathesome instead of positively grotesque,” but at this point a change is as good as a feast.

And if all the foregoing sounds exhausting rather than energizing, then do two more things: take a week off NOW and spend it sitting in a bubble bath or hiking through autumn leaves and not thinking about this place at all; and then come back and use the computer in your broom closet to start job-hunting. It’s a bad economy and older women do face discrimination in the workplace, but you’ll be able to find small arts organizations with better attitudes and atmospheres which will be thrilled to have you. You’ll also be able to find large arts organizations whose development, marketing and education departments could all use someone with your background–and which won’t expect you to fix the toilet.

Finally, please try to remember what made you take the job in the first place. If you love this art form, see if you can’t get back in touch with that fact and with the way that working for this agency contributes to the art form’s growth. If you don’t love the form–if you took the job because it was a job, or because you love “the arts” and figured any one was as good as any other–then this is never going to satisfy you, no matter how well-restored the building or cooperative your Board or spacious your office. Conversely, if this kind of artistic work is the love of your life, then you’ll fix toilets and make coffee and browbeat Board members to make sure it thrives.

Check in and let us all know how things go for you.

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12 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, “AND my office is in a broom closet!””

  1. Katherine Says:

    Would it be right to ask if the Board members here are also scared of their own impotence to make things change? They sound like they’re trying to stay within their own levels of competence, but finding the right trainer/s to teach them How To Ask for Money could make big difference to them as well as to the organisation.

    or am I whistling in the dark?

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Yes, most Board members are terrified of responsibilities no one has ever explained to them; or, if they’ve explained the responsibilities, they haven’t explained how they’re to be executed. Board training could be very helpful in getting veteran as well as new Board members off their asses and out into the money-filled community.

  2. Jeff Imparato Says:

    You should explain that as ED, you need to be visible, and in a respectable place, when donors visit. Although you’re in an old building, there is no reason that your workspace has to look old. Good impressions are important when showing a client the need, and making the ask. This will make a difference between maintaining status quo, and exceeding expectations.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Excellent point. It long ago occurred to the Nonprofiteer that nonprofit EDs get condescended to by the business-people on their Boards because they get paid approximately what those same business-people pay their secretaries, and having an office in a broom closet is another aspect of the same problem: if your employers don’t respect you, neither will anyone else.

  3. Arts Says:

    If an organization has been struggling for 30 years, doesn’t it beg the question: why does it still exist? Not all arts orgs are meant to be. Know when to fold ’em.

    • John McCann Says:

      Holding on, keeping on, hanging on, is not only legitimate…it’s even ok to complain about it while doing it. To exists—even if barely—while doing the good work the group is called to do—is all that’s required. All organizations are meant to be—or it would be otherwise.

      • Nonprofiteer Says:

        The Nonprofiteer isn’t sure “all organizations were meant to be”–any product of human invention (such as organizations) can be superfluous, ill-advised, or rendered obsolete (remember the Pony Express? or the print newspaper?). It’s certainly useful to ask the question whether a particular organization is accomplishing a particular purpose more effectively than anyone else, and if the answer is “no” it’s only honest to respond by changing or dissolving the organization. That might not be Zen but it constitutes best practice in the business world.

  4. Jeff Imparato Says:

    I look at 30 years of existence as a success. Now this organization needs to reexamine its mission to serve the art community, with the idea of cooperating with other art agencies, and possibly merge with another like-minded organization to create a stronger entity. When the ED is also the plumber, its more than the plumbing that needs to be fixed. With dwindling resources, from fewer grantmakers, you either work together or go out of existence.

  5. Ida Cradley Says:

    I’m writing to offer some support to the original poster. I’ve recently left a similar position after trying unsuccessfully to run the daily operations, handle bookkeeping and finances all but one day per week, raise the development funds, develop a diminishing board that was unable to raise funds or acknowledge the context of our severely under-capacity organization, and more.

    Our organization does good work, is having an impact, and generates substantial funds from earned income. I would suggest that there are a few key components that have to be in place to make it work for you and ones I needed to have it work for me:

    A Champion with Resources — If you are plunging toilets (been there myself) and under capacity to move the day-to-day and the big picture, you simply have to have more help. And by more help, I mean the right help. That person should be your Board Chair or Fundraising Committee Chair (if you have one. I have seen it work where this person is a dynamic and connected Development Director. If you, by design, cannot be out there being the public face, they need to step into that role, bring resources, build partnerships, etc.

    A Board That Gets It — If we’re talking about 30 years of struggle and needing to do deep board fundraising training, it might be that you need to only have board members that have fundraising experience.

    It seems to me to take a year or two to get someone new to fundraising able to garner anything but small donations with the occasional major donor.

    Capacity Investments — I suspect you’ve already looked at capacity grants. Not only are they seeming to be harder to come by, but the amount of time and energy it takes to write the grant, cultivate the conversation with the funder and execute the grant can mean toilets aren’t plunged and the sure-thing earned income isn’t coming in as well.

    For me, this is also a time to invest savings, endowments, etc. in developing unrestricted revenue– either by adding an appeal, hiring an outside grant writer, hiring a PT development person, etc.

    I’m veering off a bit into my own situation, but I think some of these key components have to be in place.

    I send you some virtual support and best hopes for some breath soon.

  6. Jamison Nickol Says:

    Good Morning i read your blog often and wanted to say all the best for 2010!

  7. AKO Webmail Says:

    This blog seems to get a good ammount of visitors. How do you get traffic to it? It offers a nice individual twist on things. I guess having something authentic or substantial to post about is the most important factor.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      I’m of the “If you build it . . .” school, and a pathetically bad marketer of the site. I only write when I have something I believe to be “authentic or substantial to post about,” which means sometimes a month or more will go by. Not the best way to build a consistent audience! But thanks for your encouragement.

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